Imagine visiting a museum in your hometown, you want to buy a ticket. At the front desk there is an employee that introduces you to the museum, sells you the ticket and gives you instructions on important information. You understand her, but somehow, she pronounces some words strange. Is it an accent? Is she a foreigner? Do you have a problem with your hearing?
Now switch the sides: You are me. I am sitting at the front desk and a new visitor arrives. Having had only three days of a language crash course, my skills are mainly based on “learning by doing” – by talking to colleagues or visitors, by reading newspaper articles or comics and by rewriting phrases and sentences that seem to be handy. I hope that the visitor is a tourist - although I can already give instructions in the new language I am learning, I am more comfortable in English. In English I do not hesitate, I do not struggle with the pronunciation with some words and I do run a lower risk of being misunderstood.
As you can see, there are two different versions of the same person you could possibly meet in that situation. Depending on the language I am talking, I could be more or less confident, more or less outgoing and I could even give you more or less information.
New learned languages do not only influence our behavior and character depending on the level that we speak it, but also on the social experiences we make when we use it as well as the connection in between the language and its culture.
Just starting to learn a new language, making a lot of mistakes and experiencing native speakers correct or misunderstand you doesn’t make you feel very confident in that situation. Communication on this level is basic, not matching the intellect you actually have. Using those basic skills around people that don’t speak that language might change your character immensely – you feel special and you get more confident by showing the skills you’ve learned.
Your feelings are being directed by the way you want others to perceive you. And your feelings direct your actions.
Besides the circumstances of your learning experience and the numbers of languages you already speak, there is a central point making an impact on us as individuals – the learning of new expressions, new grammatical structures and new words, that we cannot translate exactly, but only their meaning. This “meaning” is strongly connected to emotions. Emotions, that can help or hold us from feeling a connection to a language. Some people find it easier to extract those emotions than others.
Not only the structures and meanings behind the expressions influence our relation to languages, also the sound and the experiences we connect with them, influence our character a lot. Those might be stereotypes, but the sound and the structure of a language can be seen as some kinds of “mirror” of the character, mindset or mentality people have while speaking this language.
Germans are supposed to be very direct and harsh. Do they really share this character traits or do the language tools they have just let them appear direct and harsh?
French people are supposed to be romantic. Do they all share this character traits or do the language tools they have just let them appear romantic?
Spanish people are passionate. US-Americans are outgoing. I could probably repeat this for any language and the “characteristics” of their native speakers. Do they create an overarching national stereotype or do they really influence identities? Taking this question to a smaller level, it could also be referred to different accents within a country. We connect certain character traits with certain dialects and it still remains the same question – is it just a stereotype or is it the truth?
Do we adapt our identity to the language we are speaking?
Especially bilingual people encounter the phenomenon of cultural values being connected to languages. They might experience their own variety of identities very conscious while combining two cultures on a daily basis. They even learn new languages way easier. Children growing up bilingual build a connection in their brain between both languages, which makes “switching” a lot easier. That is possible until they are about four years old. Learning a second language as a teenager or adult on the other hand requires a whole new connection in another “corner” of one’s brain – that makes learning another language more exhausting. The same phenomenon occurs with people that grew up speaking a dialect and the standard version of their language, for example their dialect at home and the standard version at school. Their brain builds the same connections as bilingual people.
The variety of languages we are learning and the circumstances that frame our experiences enable different versions of our individual identity – focusing on different values or goals within our communication. Therefore, learning new languages does not only broaden our mind externally through travelling and experiencing new cultures while connecting to new people, but also broadens our very own individual identity and character.